Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense is what might happen if Fight Club was directed by somebody like Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite), only not quite as good. Stearns’ absurdist black comedy does address many of the same issues of toxic masculinity and male insecurity as David Fincher’s 1999 cult classic, examining how both find expression through wanton acts of violence and undercurrents of homoeroticism. That it does so through a vaguely surreal lens, with arch dialogue and purposely antiquated details, emanates more from the Lanthimos section of Stearns’ personal film collection.
Fincher’s film took a sharp, focused stick to everything in its path, literally destroying the world at the end; The Art of Self-Defense is smaller and never finds its footing tonally. It’s self-consciously quirky, exacerbating the gulf between its funnier moments and darker, more harrowing sequences. Its emotional distance from its characters keeps them from becoming fully realized human beings, while Stearns sprinkles ideas throughout the film yet leaves them unexplored.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as what could only be described as a parody of a Jesse Eisenberg performance, all halting gestures, stammering dialogue and hunched, deer-in-the-headlights poses. He plays Casey, a lonely accountant who works for some anonymous company right out of Office Space and goes home at night to watch TV with his little dachshund. Out one dark night in his nameless town on an errand (to buy Dog Food, its label as generic as many other things in the movie), Casey is horrifically attacked by a squad of helmeted assailants on motorcycles, prompting him to learn how to defend himself.
That leads Casey to a dojo run by a sensei named, uh, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), who spouts all kinds of mystical bullshit to his karate students; he is either truly wiser than everyone else or just a moron. Casey signs up for the day class and is singled out for special attention by Sensei, while also striking up a sort-of friendship with the chilly, tough-as-nails instructor for the children’s class, Anna (Imogen Poots). Hapless and timid at first, Casey begins showing enough flair — meaning he becomes willing to actually beat someone pretty badly — that Sensei invites him to the mysterious and vaunted night class.
What happens there casts a darker shadow over the second half of the film and creates a kind of imbalance with its more idiosyncratic aspects. This is where Stearns gets more explicit with his theme: that the pressure to be tough — to be a real man, an alpha male — leads to extreme aggression, misogyny and lethal acts of violence. It’s not a new theme and while it’s just as relevant now as it might have been 20 years ago, Stearns doesn’t seem to know what he wants to say about it.
To his credit, Stearns — whose 2014 debut Faults more successfully walked the line between thriller and comedy — doesn’t hammer us over the head with his thesis, but neither does he provide a strong enough context for it. His actors fare somewhat better: Eisenberg reliably deploys some familiar tricks, although his abrupt turn toward monsterhood feels too forced. Nivola casts a slick pall of unformed, understated menace over everything that makes him the movie’s standout. Poots also scores with a mix of vulnerability and steel that tells us much more about Anna than the script bothers to.
Stearns’ twisty tale doesn’t do a great job at holding all its surprises close, but there are two reveals late in the game that attempt to liven up the more depressing back end of the film: one is shockingly funny (think Indiana Jones, of all people) and the other attempts to be poignant and resonant to right now, although it’s not given enough set-up to truly succeed. By the time The Art of Self-Defense settles into its cooldown, we’re still not sure whether Stearns wants us to laugh or cringe.
The Art of Self-Defense opens today (Friday, July 12) in limited release and expands to more theaters next week.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye